In the Blombos cave, on the south coast of South Africa and east of Cape Town, some of the first evidences of human cultural activity, such as shell beads, engraved pieces of ocher or tools made from a siliceous rock, called silcrete.
Among all these objects dated between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago scientists have found a piece of rock different from the rest. On the smooth face of the silcreta there are nine red lines that intersect each other drawn with ocher, as if it were the hashtag symbol. The object comes from an archaeological layer dated to about 73,000 years old.
But how to prove that the drawing was done on purpose? To be sure, the scientists performed a chemical analysis of the pigments and used RAMAN spectrometry and an electron microscope. In addition, they reproduced the lines with various techniques: with pieces of ocher with a point or a pointed part, and with brushes that marked the surface with a mixture of water and ocher powder.
“Microscopic and chemical analyzes of the pattern confirm that the red ocher pigment was intentionally applied to the sheet with an ocher wax.”, Highlights the team of researchers from different European and African laboratories in a study published in the journal Nature.
The results indicate that the lines were deliberately drawn with a pointed ocher wax between one and three millimeters thick, on a friction-based pre-smoothed surface. This makes it the oldest drawing discovered to date., anticipating in about 30,000 years to the known examples until now.
"This drawing demonstrates the ability of the first Homo sapiens in southern Africa to produce graphic designs in various media using different techniques," the authors, led by Christopher S. Henshilwood from the University of Bergen (Norway) and the University of Witwatersrandy (South Africa), for whom this reinforces the hypothesis of the symbolic use of signs.
The first symbols in history
The drawings found by scientists, considered true representations, may actually be nothing more than squiggles, painted without a specific purpose, but symbols are an inherent part of our humanity. They can be inscribed on our bodies in the form of tattoos or they can appear through special clothes, ornaments and hairstyles.
For a long time, archaeologists were convinced that the first symbols appeared when Homo sapiens colonized European territories, some 40,000 years ago.
However, later discoveries in Africa, Europe and Asia they would advance the artistic production and the use of human symbols, among which there are multiple examples. Undoubtedly, so far, the oldest engraving is a zigzag carved from a freshwater mussel found in Trinil (Java, Indonesia) in layers that are about 540,000 years old.
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